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Seven shades of fantasy

October 23, 2011

Hearts lost ... a welcome from visitors. Photo: AFP

Jane Richards swears a mermaid encounter preceded the mai tais, as she recalls Tahiti's magical charms.

AT FIRST it seems to be a trick of the sun. A huge, shimmering, perfectly formed fishtail has broken the surface about 10 metres away. In a second, it is gone.

I rub my eyes but, suddenly, there it is again. A dolphin? No. A whale? No. I know what it is but it can't be. "Look," I yell frantically to my five friends on our small boat. "Over there!"

In an instant, the beautiful tail appears again. This time we all see it and even our Tahitian skipper is speechless as he turns off the engine. The only sound besides the lapping of the water on the side of the boat is a combined sharp intake of breath as the seven of us realise as one that we are looking at a mermaid.

OK, it turns out the mermaid is of the human variety - a diver being filmed underwater for her website in a mermaid suit. But these are the magical waters off Bora Bora and it has been a morning of one spectacular experience after another. We snorkelled among curtains of tropical fish, watched sharks feeding next to us and petted stingrays - all in pristine, turquoise waters framed by volcanic islands. We are in paradise and for that split second, anything - even a mermaid - seemed possible.

Many artists, writers and romantics - perhaps most famously Paul Gauguin, Somerset Maugham, James Michener and Marlon Brando - have lost their hearts to Tahiti and its islands, or "motus", strewn across breathtaking waters said to encompass seven shades of blue.

All this beauty demands a lot from tourism operators. They must stand out in terms of what they offer, yet they must also blend in. In 2011, they cannot afford to be a blot on the landscape. On top of this, those Americans and Europeans who are still travelling tend to be at the pointy end of the tourism spectrum (and of the plane) and they don't just want a destination, they want an experience, as do Australians. The smart operators, say the locals, are the ones who know the area, listen to the local people and incorporate Tahitians into the experience.

The boutique, five-star cruise ship Paul Gauguin, which cruises French Polynesia, does all this. For a start, the ship - all clean lines and French aesthetics - is beautiful, whether it is viewed from the bustling port at Papeete or seen from Belvedere Point atop the island of Moorea - the home of Michener's Bali Hai.

The Paul Gauguin is owned by the Pacific Beachcomber company, whose chief executive, Richard Bailey, has spent years in Tahiti and was a long-time friend of the acting superstar Marlon Brando (see box).

The Paul Gauguin's water-sport deck.

The ship's operators and crew seem just as enamoured with Tahiti, its traditions and culture as its namesake, who left his wife and children when the islands captured his heart in 1891. Tahitian culture is evident in all aspects of ship life.

Marlon Brando in Tahiti filming Mutiny on the Bounty.

http://www.theage.com.au/travel/holiday-type/beach/seven-shades-of-fantasy-20111020-... 10/25/2011

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